Photo by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas
It is the age of instant gratification. Whether an athlete training for performance or a New Year’s resolutioner trying to get healthy, we want our results and we want them yesterday. When we succumb to the societal obsession with finding the quick fix and jumping from beginner to advanced overnight, we sabotage our goals before we begin.
The best workout for a young athlete is not Lebron James’ or Kahlil Mack’s. In every pursuit, we must practice the discipline to lay a strong foundation that we can build upon. Even at the elite level, it is helpful to take time and return to the basics.
John Wooden, whose team’s won 10 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships in a 12-year stretch, began each season with a demonstration on how to best wear socks and shoes. While most of the world rushes to throw bigger weights on the bar as fast as possible, I recommend the humbling, difficult work of long, deliberately slow repetitions.
Meticulous Teaching Progressions
At the beginning of every school year, my high-school athletes are subjected to another round of Coach Trotter’s meticulous teaching progressions. While the pace is dependent on experience, every athlete from freshman to senior must endure the thorough re-teaching of all our fundamental training principles, a review of each movement pattern, and the dreaded Command Tempo Circuits.
Good training is simply the execution of movement patterns at intentional tempos and a strong grasp on when to progress and regress intensity. The most fundamental component of each exercise is the repetition which can be broken down into three distinct phases:
- Negative, or eccentric (think of lowering yourself into a squat)
- Isometric (think of pausing at the bottom of a squat)
- Concentric (think of driving out of the bottom of a squat to stand back up)
The repetition is three parts: a negative, an isometric, and a concentric, or as I call them for my athletes, a lower, a pause, and a drive. In any lift these elements can be controlled by rotating a tempo. I do this with parentheses. For example, a 5 second lower, a 2-second pause, and a fast drive would be a (5-2-*) tempo. To program 3 sets of 3 reps at this tempo, I’d notate
3×3 (5-2-*). In my programs, lifters assume a (2-1-*) tempo if one is not assigned.
Most lifters rush to lift heavier weights by dropping to the bottom and bouncing back up as quick as possible. You might conceive this as a (*-*-*) tempo. We’ve all seen the bench-presser at the gym bouncing the bar off his sternum.
In a squat, this precludes essential strengthening of the eccentric stabilizers most responsible for knee injury reduction and the ability to change direction quickly. Furthermore, by eliminating the negative phase and dropping weights without resistance you eliminate the potential to get strong in full third of the lift.
You are at least 1.5 times as strong on the negative as the concentric. That is a lot of training potential being left on the table. Sure, you will necessarily have to use less weight when you honor the lowering portion of the lift, but that is just an indication that you’ve not skipped half the work.
Extremely Slow Work
Often you’ll notice young squatters bouncing up while their pelvis and knees shift violently to one direction or the other, or where their hips rise before their shoulders in the infamous, “butt wink.” There are many possible causes and fixes for these dysfunctional patterns, but I’ve found that for most, the best solution is creating strong neurological control through extremely slow negatives, isometrics, and concentrics.
In this way, we can clean up movement patterns to make sure lifters are safe. This has the long-term benefit of increasing the amount of training they can do, because they aren’t taking time off for injuries, and increasing their potential for greater power by allowing them to gracefully get in positions that are most mechanically advantageous.
Even if you have nice squats, presses, hinges, and general movement quality, you’ll be amazed what a controlled tempo can do for your long-term power and confidence under the bar. Our bodies are one kinetic chain. This means that in any exercise energy is going to transfer from the bottom, our feet, through our entire body and into the load. I can overhead press more if I firmly root my feet into the floor then I create tension through my quads, glutes, abdominals, and lats—and then I press.
Likewise, I could punch harder from two feet than one. When you build a ladder you want strong 2×4’s that stand firm and rigid. You don’t want a flimsy PVC pipe that bends under your weight. When you don’t create tension throughout your body you are lifting on a foundation of flimsy PVC and power leaks. This then creates movement compensation patterns that often present in injury, lost mobility, or lost power.
Okay, I’ve convinced you. So what does this look like in my early year progressions? After teaching each pattern, we begin progressing through rounds of this isometric hold circuit:
- Plate Offset Squats- x15 seconds
- Superman- x15 seconds
- Split Squat- x15 seconds/side
- Side Planks- x15 seconds/side
- 1-Leg Glute Bridge Hold- x15 seconds/side
- Push-up Position Plank (elbows lower close to 90 degrees) x10 seconds
Try four rounds of that. It is amazingly challenging. Times can be extended, but I typically favor more rounds of quality movement rather than longer holds.
Next, I’ll move athletes into my controlled tempo circuits. With a medium-light kettlebell we’ll do rounds of 3 reps at 5-3-1 tempo on the following circuit:
- Goblet Squat
- Push Ups (hands elevated)
- RDL (many advise against long isometric pauses here, but our weights are light and it is essential for me to get around the room to make corrections and for athletes to build the upper back strength to hold strong retraction)
- Bulgarian Split Squat (bodyweight only, each side)
- Inverted Row (bar raised to a higher pin-setting to regress)
After this phase, we move to hyper-focused (5-3-1) practice on the barbell front squat, RDL, and bench press along with my deadlift progressions. Only after all this are athletes ready to be turned loose.
There are many other tempo manipulations that are effective for teaching and creating greater mastery of movement patterns. One of the best squat cures is 1 and a half squats where you come down (eccentric) on a slow tempo, pause, slowly rise halfway up, go back down, and then come all the way up.
The slower the better for creating control and stability. As with all slow tempos, be wary of doing too many consecutive reps. The time under tension is very long for each of these repetitions, but that is what makes them great.
Even after the beginning of a program, a round of controlled tempo training can serve as a great warm up. I often end warm-ups with command tempo kettlebell goblet squats, followed by side planks, and then command tempo RDL’s.
We Can All Learn By Dissection
I’ve even begun to use a lot more eccentric and isometric phases with my more advanced athletes as advocated by Cal Dietz’s Tri-Phasic Training. Teams spend 3-4 weeks at a (6-1-*) tempo, then 3-4 weeks at a (1-4-*) tempo (like dropping a brick).
We thoroughly develop each phase appreciating the many benefits from neurological control and mobility to stronger connective tissue and increased strength. It is not until after these phases that they are ready for the concentric phase (*-*-*).
Regardless of level, we can all learn a great deal by dissecting each repetition and mindfully slowing it down to shore up the entire range of motion. Often it is not better exercises or better equipment we need, but a period of re-calibration and re-commitment to the fundamentals.